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What’s an Office For, Anyway?


Photo shows group of young professionals collaborating in an office
Source: Dimco -
As enterprises plan to bring employees back into offices this year — and as the return date seems to keep getting pushed back — many are anticipating hybrid work arrangements: Most employees would have the ability to work at home and in an office, with the enterprise creating a strategy for when it’s appropriate to work from home vs. when employees should come in. At the heart of any such vision is the enterprise’s answer to the question: What’s the office for?
It seems there could be a disconnect between employers and employees on this question, based on survey findings released last month by consultancy PwC. The report is based on a survey of 133 U.S. company executives and 1,200 U.S. workers taken last November and December; it updates a June 2020 PwC survey that I wrote about here.
PwC asked both the executives and the workers what the purpose of the office is. The comparison is striking. For employers, the ranking is:
  1. Increasing employee productivity
  2. Providing a space to meet with clients
  3. Enabling our employees to collaborate effectively
  4. Enabling our company culture
And here’s the ranking by employees:
  1. Collaborating
  2. Accessing equipment or documents securely
  3. Meeting with clients or colleagues
  4. Training and career development
So employers focused on the benefits to the enterprise, while employees focused on the benefits to them in doing their particular jobs. Not surprising, on one level, is that each group zeroed in on its own interests. But the two lists and their divergence offer some sobering hints as to how challenging the return to office, under a new hybrid model, may be.
These findings also challenge, or at least complicate, the conventional wisdom that offices are for collaboration and remote work is for individual effort. Employees believe this, but employers are less convinced. It seems clear that employers believe that the office is where the enterprise “lives.”
There’s an irony there. Employers value the office primarily for driving productivity, yet the same PwC survey shows employers more bullish than their employees when it comes to the productivity of remote work — with employers’ opinion of remote work growing since PwC’s earlier survey. In the latest survey, 52% of employers said their workers were more productive when working remotely, up from 44% in the previous survey. Employees’ confidence in remote work also grew between the two surveys, but it lagged employers’ — 34% of employees in the latest survey said they were more productive remotely, up from the previous 28%.
I’m also intrigued by the employees’ second choice of what’s most important about the office: Accessing equipment or documents securely. It’s a telling vote of no-confidence in their enterprise IT systems and, in a sense, of their own ability to secure the tools and products of their work. No surprise, then, that in another survey question, 70% of employers said they’re planning to increase investments in IT infrastructure to secure virtual connectivity.
And it’s interesting to see employees view training and career development as a function of the office. Online training is hardly a new phenomenon, and it’s been the only way to get any training for the past year. This, along with the point about “career development” may suggest that, on some level, employees understand how their employers think when it comes to the value of the office — that they still believe you have be present to get ahead.
Take it all together, and it seems that as enterprises fine-tune their return-to-office plans, they’d be wise to do what PwC did, and ask their employees that basic question: What’s the office for?